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Member Name: maikli
Date: 28/10/02, updated on 29/10/02 (1011 review reads)
Advantages: Friendly people, colourful souqs, Nile sunsets, not many foreigners
Disadvantages: Heat, dust, poverty, not many tourist attractions, no tourist infrastructure
I live in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. I am here as a volunteer English teacher, working in a no-frills secondary school...but aside from teaching, I have managed to do the "touristy" things in Khartoum, and will use this space to try and make it sound like an attractive place. I thought teaching was hard, but this is much more difficult!
Sudan is not a pretty place. There are nice views and pleasant places to visit, but it can't be described as beautiful. At least, I have not seen anything to persuade me to write otherwise as yet.
Khartoum, a huge sprawling metropolis, is not immediately likeable. It is hot, dusty, poor, chaotic, crowded... There are few old buildings, the rest made from concrete, either half finished or half demolished (sometimes hard to tell). The few colonial buildings left over from the British era are in such a bad state of disrepair that they are hardly worth braving the heat to track them down. But in spite of all this, Khartoum grows on you.
The location of Khartoum is slightly special...it lies at the confluence of the Blue and the White Niles. And yes, they are different colours, the one being a sort of muddy grey, and the other a dirty brown. Across the White Nile is Khartoum's more traditional cousin, Omdurman, while facing Khartoum on the opposite bank of the Blue Nile is Khartoum North, more commonly known as Bahri. Bahr
i is mainly a residential and industrial suburb, and apart from a couple of riverside cafes and a busy souk, there is little to tempt the visitor across the bridge linking it with Khartoum.
Why do I like Khartoum? Well, I like it for all the reasons I listed above...it is hot, dirty, chaotic, etc...it all depends on mood. If I am in a bad mood after a hard day's teaching/crowd control, then the last thing I want is to be accosted by a thousand and one beggars with missing limbs in the heat of the day while trying to navigate the heaving souqs to locate my bus, a rusty pile of metal which somehow manages to move. The chaos will give me a headache, I will snap at anyone who dares to shout out "khawaja" ("foreigner!") at me, and I will curse the city to Hell and back.
If, on the other hand, I have had a good day (and this is more likely), then I see it all in a completely different light. On these days, I can't think of anywhere I would rather be than being jostled in the souqs by Dinka tribesmen and covered women with tribal scars on their faces. Being slowly crushed on a local bus is seen as one of lifes little pleasures, especially when all thoughts are drowned out by the unique sound of Sudanese pop music. The dusty streets are "rustic", the decay "adds to the character" of the place, the heat becomes bearable, the chaos is vaguely amusing.
You have to prepare yourself for Khartoum. The chaos, the heat and the poverty will hit you hard as soon as you step out of the plane. It might seem like an India with no redeeming features. If you come expecting the worst, then you'll find it not too bad at all, but come expecting a charming Arab city with five star luxury, and Khartoum will be your version of Hell.
If you can do without luxury and comfort, then maybe you'll enjoy your time in Khartoum and the rest of Sudan. For someone stuck in the city for a few days, then the
re is more than enough to do, so I will start by talking about the attractions in Khartoum.
Your first introduction to the city will probably be Souq Arabi, the huge melee of buses, rickshaws, beggars, fruit juice stalls and shops that forms the centre of Khartoum. On the map, it looks like a rectangular plaza, but in reality it is a collection of bus stations based around a large mud-brick mosque. Buses come at you from all directions, as do the beggars....there are thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons who have descended on Khartoum in the last decade, each one with their own tale of misery...the problem is deciding who to give your money to. Although crime is rare in Khartoum, this is one place to watch your bag.
After a fruit juice or six at one of the many stalls, you could do worse than visit one of the two museums. There are actually meant to be four museums in Khartoum, although I've only seen two of them open. The main one is the National Museum of Sudan, an extensive collection of ancient artefacts from all around Sudan. The ground floor deals with the archaeological finds, while the top floor has paintings lifted from churches of the old Christian kingdom of Dongola. Don't miss the temples, taken down brick by brick, transported to Khartoum and reconstructed in the museum's grounds. Look hard and you can see some graffiti left over from 19th century excavations. If archaeology isn't your thing, then outside in the ruin-strewn gardens is a pleasant cafe where you can contemplate what the crocodile pool once looked like when it had water and crocodiles in it.
The second functional museum is the Presidential Palace Museum. This houses a bizarre collection of gifts that the various leaders of Sudan have accumulated from foreign dignitaries. Look out for the first piano in Sudan (maybe been dropped down a flight of stairs in its lifetime, methinks), the Persian chess set, and an unusual orname
nt from the Omdurman Abbattoir Union. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this museum is the building itself...it is housed in a former Anglican church, complete with plaques commemmorating the lives of British soldiers who died here. Again, this museum has a garden cafe, and a greenhouse containing cast-off presidential cars. The ideal location for graduation photos, or at least, that must have been what a group of Thais thought when they arrived en masse in gowns and mortarboards one Friday afternoon! Don't ask me why....
Both museums cost 100 dinar, which is less than 50c/30p. Also note that these are two of the very few places in the country selling postcards, so stock up here!
Museums aside, there isn't an awful lot to do in Khartoum. Down by the University of Khartoum is an impressive cathedral, although the gates have been locked every time I've tried to enter, so I cannot wax lyrical about the interior. The mosques, as far as I know, are off-limits to non-Muslims, which is a shame, as one or two of them are very striking. Once you've finished church and mosque spotting, then the next thing to do is head down to the Nile and sit admiring the view while sipping tea or mango juice at one of the riverside cafes. There are plenty to choose from, all rough tables on dirt floors, all charging more than normal but still well within the budget of a rich "khawaja". Take any bus heading to omdurman, and you'll pass a string of such cafes just after the national Museum.
For the adventurous, you can take a boat over to Tutti Island for 15 dinars (i.e. nothing). This is not for the faint-hearted or the infirm...the motorized boats sit very low in the water, are crammed full of passengers and could capsize at any moment in the strong currents of the Nile. Tutti is a peaceful haven though, a traditional mud-brick village of dust roads and farming land. This is the place to come in the late afternoon, when the
weather becomes cool enough to explore the maze-like alleys, and the sunsets from the boat terminal are among the best.
If you walk the length of Tutti, then you'll come across another boat terminal with even more rickety canoes heading over to Omdurman. Omdurman, although technically part of the metropolis of Khartoum, is a city in its own right. Omdurman is much more traditional than Khartoum, and actually has something to show for its fairly short but infamous history. When the British conquered Khartoum, the Sudanese leader known as the Mahdi set up camp opposite the city, founding Omdurman. Nowadays, you can visit the Mahdi's house (Bayt al-Khalifa) which is now an interesting small museum showing how the Mahdi and his family lived. Next door is a colourful and striking conical tomb surrounded by palm trees...this is where the Mahdi is buried. Unfortunately, non-Muslims cannot enter, so you'll have to make do with the view from afar.
Along the river banks are the remains of Omdurman's mud-brick defences. I say remains, as there really is not much left, but with a few good cafes nearby, these might be worth investigating if you have the time.
A better trip would be to Omdurman Souq, a confusing area of narrow street markets about a mile inland. Although this souq is nothing in comparison with Damascus' Souq al-Hamidiyyah, or Sana'a's Suq al-Milh, Omdurman Souq can be a fascinating place to wander round, particularly in the late afternoon. Like other Arab souqs, each street tends to sell a different type of product...one row of shops sell beads for jewellery, another has spice stalls stretching as far as the eye can see, another street is dedicated to bicycle parts, while another doesn't actually sell anything at all...ebony-skinned men in pure white jellabiyyas and turbans sit behind tables with one item on display. The ones with axes are labourers looking for a day's work, while those with a ligh
t bulb on show are electricians waiting to be hired. It is more for the diverse mix of people that Omdurman Souq is interesting...where else can you mingle with Dinkas and Bileng tribesmen with tribal scars on their foreheads, Arab merchants transporting their goods on donkeys, African women in brightly coloured tobes?
On Fridays, most of Khartoum and Omdurman shuts down completely right up until sunset. Cafes and juice stalls tend to stay open, as do museums, but shops and transport are less reliable. On a Friday afternoon, one thing to do is to pay a trip to Hamd en-Nil Mosque where Sufis or Whirling Dervishes do what they are famous for...whirl in the sand to the complicated rhythms of Sudanese drumming.
Khartoum is a safe place to walk around, day or night, despite its somewhat negative image abroad as something of a terrorist stronghold. If you listen to the Western media, Sudan is a very unsafe place to visit, and yes, parts of the country are. But here in Khartoum, there is very little evidence of the on-going war that rages in the south of the country, nor of the tribal conflicts around the Eritrean border. Crime does exist, but compared to Western cities, it is negligible. The greatest hazard comes from crossing the road.
Sudanese hospitality is known throughout the Arab World. I know it is a stereotype, but in general the Sudanese are a happy bunch, extremely friendly and helpful to foreigners. Chances are you will meet new friends on buses and will be invited to their house for a meal. Take my advice...accept, but never accept more than one invitation in one day, as death by overfeeding is not the most pleasant way to go.
Transport is cheap and fairly fast and reliable. The only problem for the tourist is the complete lack of signs on the buses...there is no way to know where the bus is going, and even shouting out your destination won't help you much. You just have to trust a local to put you on the right bus.
Normally, I am one for walking round cities, but Khartoum challenged that due to the extreme heat (temperatures are often in the high 30's and low 40's, and the sun is strong). Distances between points of interest are long, so getting to know the bus system is really the only way to get around the system. The buses never charge more than 60 dinar for any ride, and a "kamasaari" collects the fares on board. To stop the bus, you click your fingers at him (and it is always a "him"), and he will hiss at the driver to stop. Amjads are a faster, more comfortable and more expensive alternative to buses, although they never cost more than 100 dinar.
Rickshaws are another matter entirely. Sometimes you might be lucky and find a khawaja-friendly rickshaw driver, but nine times out of ten, you will be ripped off unless you know how much it should cost. Taxis are the luxury way to travel, as they have no meters and you are at the mercy of the taxi driver...don't go near them!
Sudan isn't really noted for its sumptuous and delicious cuisine. The main staple is "fuul", fava beans boiled to a mush and mixed with salt, goat's cheese and chilli, scooped up with bread from a metal bowl eaten by the roadside. Sometimes it is nice, but sometimes it tastes exactly how it looks...a bowl of s**t. Restaurant food is not really exciting at the best of times, and is mostly limited to lamb kebabs, lamb shawarmas, chicken shawarmas, ta'amiyya (felafel) and burgers. Sometimes you can strike lucky and find roast chicken or fried fish, but on the whole Sudanese restaurant food is uninspiring and stodgy. On the other hand, if you happen to be invited to a Sudanese home, then don't miss this opportunity to try Sudanese specialities such as Aseeda and Tagaliyya.
Like most Arab countries, tea is very popular, served black with cardamom, cinnamon or mint, or with powdered milk. Either way it is always extremely swe
et. Coffee is also good, served thick, strong and black with lots of sugar. Kerkedeh is a tea made from hibiscus leaves, nice hot but better when chilled. Fruit juices are excellent and cheap (between 30 and 50 dinars per glass). The standard ones are orange, mango, lemon, grapefruit and guava, but don't neglect the local ones like a'aradeeb (a thick brown juice) and sha'eer (a white milky-looking drink with a vague hint of pear). Juices are always served from slightly grubby tupperware containers filled with ice, but don't worry too much about hygiene...tap water here is not only drinkable, it is actually quite good. Beware of extremely sugary orange juice though....
If fruit juices aren't your thing, then fizzy drinks are available at all shops. Pepsi, Mirinda (orange or red) and Stim (apple) are the favourites, although I prefer the Sudanese Bizianos, which tastes a bit like cough mixture at first, but grows on you quickly. Drink from the bottles outside the shop, as they want the glass bottles back!
Sudan is a Muslim society, and has abided by Shari'a Islamic Law since 1983. That doesn't mean that the women are veiled completely, and it doesn't mean it is a country of fundamentalists and terrorists. The women generally do cover their hair with loose lengths of material called "tobes" or just plain headscarves, but many do not seem to be too bothered if these slip off in public or not. A Western woman would not be expected to adopt local styles of dress, but she should dress modestly and not show too much flesh.
The Islamic laws also prohibit alcohol, but that does not mean it doesn't exist in Sudan. Many Sudanese enjoy an illegal drink or two, and many social gatherings among the upper classes would not be the same without a bottle of expensive whisky. Keep your distance from locally produced alcohol, though....known as Aragi, it is made from dates and smells just like paintstripper...do
n't ask me what it tastes like, I never got that far!
Nightlife doesn't really exist...in the evenings, people gather in parks and cafes, and sip tea until 11pm when all parties are expected to end. Weddings, if you should be invited to one, are fun and raucous occasions with lots of African-style dancing and food...but again, these end at 11pm.
Did I mention the heat? Well, the weather so far has been hot and sunny all the time, temperatures in the forties, and the occasional rainstorm. When it rains, mosquitos come out in force, so bring mozzie repellent and a protective net...and don't even think of coming without malaria prophylactics.
All in all, this review probably won't make you rush to the travel agents to book your flight to Khartoum, and I wouldn't really advise anyone to come to Sudan on holiday just yet. There is a lot of potential here for tourism...river trips along the Nile, diving in the Red Sea, trekking in Jebel Marra in the west, camel racing with the Nomads, the mountainous town of Kassala, safaris in Dinder National Park, the ancient ruins and pyramids of Marawi and Dongola...just the infrastructure needed to attract foreign visitors is not there. In Khartoum and Port Sudan, 5* hotels do exist for businessmen, but other than that you're looking at $3 a night flop houses. Don't expect comfort, fine dining or lots to see and do. Come if you want to see a country virtually untouched by tourism, you can cope with a bit of grime and poverty, and are looking for a bit of an adventure. Even then, I'm sure there are many more worthwhile places to visit in the world before Sudan begins to tempt. If you have the chance to visit friends or relatives in the country, then I would seriously consider going, but if not, maybe you should try elsewhere.